Off the back of a new album that finally sees Cambodian singer Chhom Nimol taking a lead on songwriting duties, Dengue Fever is set to return to Cambodia this week for the fifth time
This Friday, Cambodian-born and LA-based singer Chhom Nimol will take the stage in Phnom Penh, flanked by her five strikingly American bandmates and draped in shiny silk.
She’ll perform primarily in Khmer, her warbling vocals recalling the best of the 1960s golden age. It is, after all, a family trait: her father once sang with Sinn Sisamouth on a movie soundtrack.
The band, Dengue Fever – entering their 16th year together – have always fused Vietnam-era American surf-rock with a handful of other influences: Latin sound, Afro percussion and, of course, Khmer pop. But bassist Senon Williams, a self-described punk-rock kid, insists that their music is primarily Western.
“We’re five guys from Los Angeles in the band. We’re not trying to be Cambodian or emanate anything Cambodian – we leave that up to Nimol,” Williams said this week over a Skype call from Los Angeles.
As a result, Dengue Fever’s music for a while had an unconventional kind of incubation period.
The band would write their melodies with full lyrics in English, pass them on to Nimol for translation and sing them in Khmer.
The rest of the band has barely a working knowledge of the language (“tik tik”, Williams joked) and would often be taken aback by just how many Khmer syllables Nimol could draw out of their English songs.
But on their most recent album, The Deepest Lake, released in January 2015, Dengue Fever shifted the formula.
“I think the newest thing about this album was really letting Nimol’s voice shine – not trying to conform her to our melodies, but us finding melodies that work best for her,” Williams said.
“It only took us 13 years to learn how to write a song together,” he added with a laugh.
Tokay, the opening track, came from a melody Nimol was humming as she walked into the studio. The verses were left entirely up to her – music and lyrics – and backed by some palpable Afro-drum beats. Likewise, No Sudden Moves features a bit of Khmer rap – something the band hadn’t done before – again improvised by the lead vocalist.
Dengue Fever will bring this altered sound to Cambodia next week when they play three shows on a hastily planned tour of the Kingdom – only their fifth trip here together as a band.
They’ll first stop by Siem Reap as part of the first-ever Dontrey Chub Met festival, where the band will perform alongside Cambodia-based acts like Miss Sarawan, the Kampot Playboys and Batbanger Band.
And at the weekend, they’ll do back-to-back shows on the grounds of the Mansion in Phnom Penh.
Dengue Fever anticipates a sweet – if quick – return to Cambodia. Nimol recently became a US citizen, and the American Embassy is serving as a partner during the tour.
“It’s the birthplace of our singer, and that makes it really special,” Williams said.
Nimol moved to Long Beach, California, on a short-term visa in the early 2000s, joining a lively pocket of Cambodian immigrants.
Brothers Zak and Ethan Holtzman (guitarist and keyboardist, respectively), inspired by an encounter with 1960s Khmer pop on a trip to Cambodia, met her in a Cambodian nightclub called Dragon Room and swiftly made her their lead singer.
At first, they were unaware that she had grown up in a Thai refugee camp – and had already performed on Cambodian television.
Over the years, Williams said that their fused sound – and especially the old covers – increasingly appealed to multiple generations of immigrant families in the States, and to a growing young Cambodian audience. He loves playing Lost in Lao and New Years’ Eve.
“Whenever we’re playing in a town where Cambodians live, they come,” he said. “Nimol is a sense of pride for them.”
Williams expects that kind of reception next week – even if it comes from a foreign audience.
“We’ll be doing a lot of covers, just because everyone gets really excited,” Williams said. “Everyone knows them in Phnom Penh.”
Dengue Fever will play at the FCC's The Mansion, #3 Sothearos Boulevard, on Friday, February 19, and Saturday, February 20. Doors open at 7pm. Tickets ($12 or $25) are available for purchase at the FCC.